By Pat Stinson
The delicious taste of shagbark hickory nuts — sometimes described as a cross between a black walnut or brazil nut and a pecan — was introduced to me by a friend who moved to Maple City from Springport, Mich., near Jackson. He said he had never tasted another nut that had the flavor and richness of hickories, and he had lost his only source for the edible, wild “fruit” of the shagbark. Though he enjoyed eating a handful of raw hickory nuts each fall after harvest, he preferred devouring them in homemade cookies.
Where the wild nuts grow … or not.
Leelanau County, and any Michigan county north of Clare, isn’t in the growing range of shagbark hickory nut trees. Grand Traverse County MSU Agricultural Extension Agent Duke Elsner said he hasn’t seen any of the tree species in northern Michigan but knows the shagbark well, as he studied the species as food plants for luna moths in St. Joseph, where he used to live. The tree wasn’t common, he said, even in the southern counties. (You can learn more about hickories in the St. Joseph area by reading the first essay in the recently-published collection, Looking for Hickories: The Forgotten Wildness of the Rural Midwest, by Tom Springer, University of Michigan Press, $19.95.)
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (the local branch of the National Park Service) Biologist Ken Hyde said North Manitou Island boasts American Chestnut and Butternut trees, but the silvery-gray curling bark strips and abundant shade of the big-leafed shagbarks aren’t present on the island today and haven’t been identified growing naturally within the Lakeshore. Naturalist Alice VanZoeren has found a single shagbark hickory tree growing on an old farm close to the Port Oneida area but said she’s certain it was planted.
Although several nut bearers and exotics were among the 50 or so tree varieties planted on the grounds of the former state hospital in Traverse City, hickories weren’t among them or, at least, didn’t survive long enough to be included on a list compiled by the Friendly Garden Club of Traverse City. (To see a copy of the list, visit www.thevillagetc.com and select the “clickable map” on the left, then scroll below the diagram.)
This intriguing entry appeared in the Grand Traverse Herald News on Nov. 15, 1905, and was reprinted in the same paper in 2005 as part of “100 Years Ago Today,” written by Emma Jane Muir: “B. Hawkins, a good friend of this office, left a nice basket of grapes, some peaches, walnuts and hickory nuts Tuesday afternoon. Hickory nuts are very scarce in the city as they have not yet made their appearance on the Chicago market and cannot be bought.”
Whether the hickory nuts were gathered locally or purchased outside the city is a mystery.
According to Traverse City Parks and Recreation Superintendent Lauren Vaughn, Hickory Hills — named 58 years ago when city ski operations first began on 12 acres at the end of Randolph Street — does contain “some” shagbark hickories, though he hasn’t seen the shagbarks, himself. Today, a person would have to spot them among 125 acres of beech, maple, red pine, oak, ironwood, black walnut and locust trees. “…There could have been more hickory trees in areas that have since been cleared for the ski runs,” Vaughn said, “or, perhaps, there were more present earlier in the successionary process of the forests.”
How to purchase them.
One day several years ago, while thumbing through an American Spoon Foods catalogue, I was excited to find a picture of “wild hickory nuts” sold in 4- or 6-ounce packages. The price tag (somewhere between $6.95 and $8.95, if memory serves) shocked me but the nuts were intended as a gift for a friend. I scoured cookbooks for old nut cookie recipes while waiting for the little package to arrive in the mail. I settled on a generic recipe that seemed to have the right balance of ingredients, and I proudly presented him with a plate of homemade hickory-nut cookies for his late November birthday.
(Shagbark hickory nuts ripen from August to October and fall to the ground between September and December.) I could tell my friend enjoyed the fresh-baked cookies, but they weren’t the way he remembered them from earlier years. I taste-tested a cookie or two myself, of course, and loved the hickory nut’s flavor — though the cookie batter was bland. Though I wanted to purchase more nuts and try another recipe, I couldn’t justify the cost.
Running errands in Traverse City this fall, I took a small detour to American Spoon Foods on Front Street and asked about the hickory nuts. I was told that they no longer stocked them as it was too difficult to gather sufficient quantities in the wild. (They are not commercially grown in this country; the process of cracking and shelling the nuts is labor-intensive. Three hours of shelling might yield one cup of nuts.)
Using Google as my compass, I sought out websites selling shagbark nuts and found Ray’s Hickory Nuts (www.rayshickorynuts.com) in Juneau, Wisconsin, offering shelled shagbark hickory nuts; Goods from the Woods (www.wildcrops.com) offering Ozark shagbark hickory nuts still in their dried shells; and an Indiana seller on eBay with a pound of shelled shagbarks. I paid full price on eBay, since Ray’s website was sold out (thanks to a recent article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) and, being in a hurry, I wasn’t about to shell a pound of hickory nuts (it takes 100 seeds to make a cup of shelled nuts), even for a good friend.
In my web search, I also found a dozen recipes or more for hickory nut cookies, but none that grabbed me as much as a blog post for Shagbark Hickory Nut Cookies with Maple Cream (www.theperfectpantry.com). As I read the post, looked at photos of a gorgeous shagbark hickory tree laden with fruit and read the good humor of the writer, I knew I had found my cookie recipe. In November, I once again made a batch of about 30 cookies using one cup of nuts (1/4 of a pound) and was absolutely amazed by the results. First, the hickory nuts from Indiana had been shelled by a master (named “Jeff”). There were no broken pieces – the heart-shaped nuts were fresh, whole and snapped when you chewed them.
The recipe was a perfect blend of shortening, butter and brown sugar, lending a crisp sweetness that was balanced by the roastiness of the baked nuts. For once, a cookie with nuts could be unintentionally overbaked and not reek of charred nuts nor taste bitter. All who tasted them gave them an “A,” including my friend. (I skipped the maple cream frosting and nobody noticed.)
A heritage food and lasting legacy
American Indians reportedly stored bushels of shagbark hickory nuts and ground them into meal for use in soups and breads (www.slowfoodusa.org – visit The Ark of Taste). The nuts’ caloric count is high, at 186 calories per 9 nuts (1 oz.), with significant amounts of thiamine and magnesium. In addition to people, they’re a fall and early-winter food source for squirrels, chipmunks and rabbits, who gather and eat the majority, but black bears, gray and red foxes, raccoons, white-footed mice, ducks and turkeys eat them, too.
The green, golf ball- or chicken egg-sized outer husk of shagbark seeds or “fruit” ripen to a brown hue before drying and splitting enough to harvest the nuts inside. Some folks wait for the nut to rattle in the husk before splitting them open with a hammer. Others have been known to run over them with a car or lawn mower. (The latter can send nuts flying at damaging speeds toward people, animals and buildings). Whatever method is chosen, the nuts must still be carefully picked out of their shells – a job that can last for hours or days, depending on the size of the harvest.
Food products derived from hickory nut trees include Hickory Nut Syrup from Indiana, made with sugar syrup and an extract from the tree bark that imparts an “earthy, smoky flavor” (www.hickoryworks.com) and Hickory Nut Oil from China.
Web recipes for hickory nuts abound. One that pays attention to some of the more traditional foods includes: www.prodigalgardens.info/hickory%20nut%20recipes.htm
It’s said that no wood can beat hickory for commercial uses requiring strength and hardness. Tool handles, furniture, kitchen cabinets and floors are all made of hickory, as are ladder rungs, dowels, athletic goods and gym equipment.
Hickory is an excellent firewood, with a high and long-lasting heat value. Green wood is often used to smoke meats and the charcoal gives grilled food a hickory-smoked flavor.
Who wouldn’t want a hickory nut tree growing in the yard? Well, those who don’t like critter visits or looking at fallen fruits (though one may cancel the other) that must eventually be harvested or cleared.
The tree’s shaggy appearance and tendency to lose its bark in strips may not appeal to some. The 70-90 ft. trees produce a lot of shade – eventually. The slow-growing, long-lasting shagbark hickory tree can take 20 to 75 years to produce its first crop of nuts, depending on which website you believe, but a USDA Forest Service site states that 40 years is the shagbark hickory’s commercial seedbearing age and maximum seed production occurs between 60 and 200 years.
Still, if an upland site with a southern exposure is available, and one has infinite patience, the tree will send down a massive taproot the first few years before inching slowly toward the sky with a straight, narrow crown and branches spreading to 40-ft. widths. In fall, it dazzles with leaves ranging from mustard-yellow to orange.
As for my friend and me, we probably won’t be around in 40 years to gather the first harvest from a planted shagbark hickory. It’s the thought of keeping the sweet nut’s taste alive in more than the imagination of future generations that gives us a powerful incentive to plant.
Euell Gibbons was wrong. Nothing “Tastes like wild hickory nuts.”